Playing ball

Minor-league teams pitch new parks as a way for downtown development to hit a home run.
By Spencer Campbell and Erin Dunn

About 20 years ago, the Durham Bulls minor-league baseball team was thinking about leaving downtown. The movie Bull Durham had debuted in 1988, and 5,000-seat Durham Athletic Park, the team’s home since 1926, was bursting at the seams. Two years after the film’s release, the club became the nation’s first Class A affiliate to surpass 300,000 in season attendance. At the behest of then-owner Miles Wolff, Durham County commissioners approved a bond referendum for a new ballpark, but voters shot it down. The team was sold in 1990 to Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Co., whose CEO and president, Jim Goodmon, decided to move the team to a multisport complex he wanted to build near Raleigh-Durham International Airport. But the City Council grabbed the Bulls by the horns, allocating $16.1 million to build Durham Bulls Athletic Park without a referendum. It wasn’t a popular move. One councilman, considered the plan’s most ardent supporter, lost his seat in the next election. “Nobody remembers how difficult and ugly it was,” says George Habel, vice president of Capitol’s sports group. “But the ballpark turned out to be a great success.” The stadium opened in 1995 with 7,500 seats — later expanded at Capitol’s expense to 10,000 — and is owned by the city and leased to the team.

Not only did it draw more fans, it eventually spurred millions in economic development. Before the stadium was built, downtown had less than 1 million square feet of office space, fewer than 100 residential units and not even 3,000 people worked there, according to Bill Kalkhof, president of the nonprofit booster group Downtown Durham Inc. It now has almost 3 million square feet of office space, nearly 1,000 residential units and more than 15,000 employees. Capitol, the city and the county invested $200 million renovating nearby tobacco  factories and warehouses into the American Tobacco Campus, a mixed-used development. Across the street stands the $47 million Durham Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2008 and earned $2.5 million in 2010-11. “None of those would’ve happened without the ballpark,” Kalkhof says.

Durham’s success has inspired copycats and wannabes. Greensboro and Winston-Salem have opened downtown ballparks, and the Charlotte Knights want one in the Queen City’s  “uptown.” Kalkhof, Habel and Durham Mayor Bill Bell recently met with Wilmington City Council members, who are considering a proposal from developers to construct a stadium and bring minor-league baseball there. All of these — save Greensboro’s — required or will require public funds to build. “Most politicians tend to think real estate will take care of itself,” Habel  says. “But they have to stoke the fire.”

 

 

WINSTON-SALEM DASH

BB&T Ballpark
City: Winston-Salem
Year opened: 2010
Capacity: 7,200
Cost: $48.7 million
Public investment: $26.7 million
Affiliate of: Chicago White Sox
Class: A (Carolina League)

BB&T Ballpark hit rough waters when the team’s owners decided to expand the project during construction but couldn’t secure sufficient financing. The city borrowed $12.7 million and contributed a
$2 million grant on top of its initial investment to finish the stadium, which opened a year late. The team paid about $1.4 million last year in ticket surcharges, property taxes and sponsorships to the
city, which owns the ballpark. Revenue, including ticket and concession sales and sponsorship agreements, was about $8.5 million, up from about $8.3 million in 2010. Team President Geoff Lassiter
says foot traffic has helped renew a blighted area, and construction on a 200-unit apartment complex nearby is expected to start this summer, the first development in what he hopes will include
restaurants, offices or an entertainment venue.

 

 

CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS

BB&T Ballpark
City: Charlotte
Year opened: projected 2014
Capacity: projected 10,000
Cost: projected $54 million
Public investment: $16 million
Team: Charlotte Knights
Affiliate of: Chicago White Sox
Class: AAA (International League

The City Council voted in June to pay the Knights an $8 million subsidy to help finance a stadium, meaning that after about a decade chasing a downtown ballpark, the team could break ground in October. The Knights moved from Charlotte to Fort Mill, S.C.,just across the state line, more than 20 years ago, but an effort to bring the team back began in the early 2000s. Lawsuits stalled construction, and the cost of the stadium escalated by $19 million, necessitating an infusion of public money. Mecklenburg County will chip in a $1-a-year lease agreement for the land and an $8 million grant. A study paid for by the Knights says the park will generate $66.4 million and create 749 jobs in the county its first year, and team revenue will increase from $4 million to $11 million. The Knights plan to build a hotel and restaurant on-site and host year-round events to boost foot traffic.

 

GREENSBORO GRASSHOPPERS

NewBridge Bank Park
City: Greensboro
Year opened: 2005
Capacity: 7,499
Cost: $22.5 million
Public investment: $0
Affiliate of: Miami Marlins
Class: A (South Atlantic League)

The city, which has been home to professional baseball for more than 100 years, debated renovating its old ballpark, World War Memorial Stadium, before the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation decided to build a new one. The local nonprofit arranged a land swap for the property, put up $12 million in cash and financed the rest. No tax money was used. The Grasshoppers’ ownership group is in talks with the foundation to buy the stadium, which General Manager Donald Moore says could take place as early as late summer. He estimates the team already spends more than $1 million a year for costs such as rent and utilities but won’t disclose the team’s 2011 revenue, saying only that it increased slightly from the year before. There has been little development around the ballpark, but construction has begun on an apartment complex with nearly 200 units.

WILMINGTON

To be determined
City: Wilmington
Year opened: Projected 2014
Capacity: Projected 6,200
Cost: Projected $33.2 million to $35.7 million
Public investment: To be determined
Affiliate of: Atlanta Braves
Class: A (Carolina League)

Officials are negotiating with the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles-based Mandalay Baseball Properties LLC to move the Lynchburg Hillcats from Virginia to Wilmington. The Braves and Mandalay would be co-owners of the team, while Wilmington would eventually own the stadium. The city had not committed by mid-June but has hired Topeka, Kan.-based National Sport Services LLC to study potential sites and help it negotiate. An initial proposal asks the city to help pay down a 30-year loan by shouldering more than two-thirds of the annual debt payments. The team would pay property taxes and share ticket and naming-rights revenue with the city after reaching certain financial thresholds. A referendum on whether the city should be barred from using taxpayer money on the project is being considered.